August 13, 2020

Accidental Empires, Ch. 5 - Xerox PARC


Cringely maintains that the early pioneers of microcomputing borrowed/stole freely from the worlds of mainframes and minicompuuters without fear of recrimination. e.g. Kildall's copying of a command set from DEC's TOPS-10 minicomputer OS.

However, after 1981/2 and the introduction of 16 bit chips, these role models were no longer adequate. All the new ideas, which fuelled the microcomputer industry, were to be found at Xerox PARC.

PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) - Computer Science Laboratory


Founded in 1970, PARC produced basic research not R&D. This was industrial basic research and as such was Xerox's need for insurance. Although its business was very successful, it was aware of possible changes in future office systems based on the computer. Xerox decided to invest in some insurance by hiring researchers to investigate the potential for a " paperless office". Cringely makes the point that industrial basic research does not always lead to development of products. Indeed it may well be a means by which a company can choke off competition to its existing product by patenting and subsequently mothballing innovative product. Xerox indeed saw the future as paperless and wished to build themselves a business position for that outcome.

Xerox recruited the best computer scientists in the country. These scientists developed a camaraderie that was independent,iconoclastic and at odds with Xerox's marketing people.

PARC developed concepts with the potential for office use by non experts. PARC took Doug Engelbart's work at Stanford as a basis for the development of graphical user interfaces (GUI). PARC developed this to the point of production, along with a pointing device (mouse), bitmapping of images, page editors and WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) computing. It also produced OOP (Object-oriented programming) by writing a new programming language, Smalltalk.

PARC CSL invented the first high speed networks, laser printers and with the Xerox Alto, the first computer with a GUI. This machine had a B&W bitmapped screen, mouse and hard disk data storage. However, the machine was not placed into production. At the time of its creation in 1973 it would have required a price tag of $25000 inorder for Xerox to make money. There was no "killer app" written for it. The repercussions were that Xerox's decision not to manufacture the Alto resulted in staff disaffection.

Ethernet was the creation of Bob Metcalfe, who in 1973 produced a high speed link between PARC's computers and laser printers.
Read more here.

Beyond technical innovation, PARC showed the industry the organizational infrastructure needed to develop great ideas. The man responsible for this was Bob Taylor. Taylor had moved from NASA to help develop the ARPA project for the Deptartment of Defense. Taylor arrived at PARC in 1970 and set about recruiting only the best scientists. He created a flat organizational structure, with approximately 50 scientists and 20 to 30 support staff, all coordinated by him. There were no middle managers, or junior research staff. All recruits were subjected to intense scrutiny by other research staff. Taylor encouraged cross fertilization of ideas by mixing up the researchers into various groups for different projects. Taylor was not a researcher, but he directed and held the organization together.

Cringely contends that PARC was flawed. Firstly its researchers failed to recognise that some ideas, although brilliant, did not readily transfer themselves to the market place. Secondly, the "suits" did not turn these ideas into product and, in doing so, alienated the staff. This led to many of the researchers leaving Xerox, setting up there own companies and taking Taylor's organizational model with them.


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